Thursday, June 19, 2014

Touring Forest Close & the Forest Hills Gardens with Architectural Historian Barry Lewis

By Michael Perlman, Rego-Forest Preservation Council Chair & Forest Hills Times Columnist

On a warm Saturday morning, nearly 40 residents of Forest Hills and other communities gathered in Station Square, to begin their weekend with a tour of the Forest Hills Gardens and Forest Close. Many anticipated their first encounter with notable architectural historian Barry Lewis, who conducted historic NYC tours, televised on Channel Thirteen, and wrote the book, “Kew Gardens: Urban Village in the Big City.”

This tour was made possible by the Historic Districts Council, NYC’s largest citywide preservation advocate. It is part of the non-profit’s “Six To Celebrate,” where the HDC will offer tours of the neighborhoods which encompass the six preservation-worthy selections of 2014 between June and October. HDC Preservation Associate Barbara Zay explained, “These tours serve to highlight neighborhoods that many New Yorkers are unaware of, and in places that are more heavily trodden, to shine a light on unknown aspect of their history or built environment.”

The Forest Close Association nominated Forest Close, an assemblage of rowhouses designed in 1927 by Robert Tappan, a client of Cord Meyer Development Company. It is bounded by 75th Road, 76th Avenue, and Austin Street. Zay explained, “The HDC seeks to raise awareness of this delightful neo-Tudor enclave and explore opportunities to further protect it for future generations. The Association is concerned about new developments and real estate projects in its surrounding neighborhood that could threaten the Close’s sense of place.”

“Town home living in Forest Close and nearby Arbor Close allows for gardening, outdoor dining, or winter reading by the fireplace,” said Forest Close resident Elisa Barsoum Losada. “Each home has a private patio overlooking a shared common green space and has doorbells on the patio and front doors. These features encourage a sense of community, and allow neighbors to live and work together throughout the seasons.”

“Contemporary architects and developers can take a lesson from the design of Forest Close,” said Joanne Wasti, who opened her home and served fine cookies and lemonade. She explained, “As people become more aware of their carbon footprint and green design, Forest Close is an example of a design emphasizing community and away from the car culture. The shared garden area also helps with run-off and cools our homes in the summer.”

The Association maintains a covenant which regulates changes to its architecture and open space, similar to the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation, which upholds restrictive covenants governing the Forest Hills Gardens.

Established in 1909, the Gardens is America’s earliest planned garden community. It originated when the Russell Sage Foundation purchased land from the Cord Meyer Development Company, and Principal Architect Grosvenor Atterbury and Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. developed what would become an internationally recognized model of urban planning. Tudor and Arts & Crafts mansions, a few apartment houses, the Forest Hills Inn, religious institutions, and outdoor and indoor recreational features can be found.

Barry Lewis highlighted the community’s history and clever design principles. Station Square was conceived as a town center, which merges residential space with an inn, shops, and the LIRR station. Lewis explained, “Atterbury’s walkway system around Station Square is brilliant. He figured, ‘Why should people staying at the Inn have to schlep their luggage outside?’ He created over the street bridges and a walkway system that goes through the buildings.” He continued, “This is urban thinking. Not suburban thinking. It’s about civilizing the city’s way to live in the industrial era.”

Lewis glanced across the way at The Inn Apartments (separate from the Inn) and pointed at the oversized casement windows. He said, “These architects understood that modern people wanted light and air in their apartments. The waffling allows for a multiple exposure.” He continued, “There was a feeling of security and coziness using distressed brick over fieldstone, which gives a rugged feeling of civility.”

Addressing front lawns of homes, Lewis pointed out that most are not fenced in, which can be attributed to covenants. “You would get off the train from NY, where everything follows a grid street system and felt claustrophobic, but here you would have a feeling of openness,” he said.

Every community faces some controversy over development. Lewis addressed the last lot to be developed, which is where The Leslie apartments stands. The site was formerly the Russell Sage Foundation’s sales office and the Austin Hanks house, where the lone surviving family member refused to sell for redevelopment’s sake. Not long after she died, The Leslie was completed in 1942.

The Leslie’s advantages were sunken living rooms, artist studio windows, social rooms, and indoor and outdoor play areas. Additionally, he stated, “An entire city block is completely surrounded by gardens. This was a template for some white brick apartment buildings of the post-war period such as the Manhattan House.”

The Community House
Another stop was Atterbury’s 1926 Community House, which contains a theater, a social hall, and basketball courts. Lewis said, “There was room for everybody. It was very common in a quality community development to have a clubhouse.” He related it to garden communities of Jackson Heights and Kew Gardens. Other historic sites that Lewis featured were the West Side Tennis Club, the Church-in-the-Gardens, the Tea Garden, Hawthorne Park, PS 101, and the Holland House just beyond the Forest Hills Gardens.

The Church-In-The-Gardens

“Protecting places such as the Forest Hills Gardens and Forest Close is important, for it is part of the fabric of New York City,” said Elmhurst resident Helen Chin. “It is unique not just terms of community, but in architecture, design, and urban planning. What was incredible is how soothing and nurturing the environment was.”

A similar version of this feature was published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column:

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